Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Creating a new step onto the property ladder to buy votes?

Apologies for the length of this blog but it includes a response to a Government consultation that readers are welcome to copy, critique or amend. Replies by 6 February 2015 to:



Stepping onto the property ladder
Enabling more low cost, high quality Starter Homes for first time buyers

Consultation Response

I have worked as a professional planner for the last 40 years in the private, public and voluntary sectors. I have also taught both planning and housing at Oxford University Department of Continuing Education  and been a member of a parish council engaged in the preparation of a neighbourhood development plan.


1.    The following response is based on the premise that Government has failed to deal with the fundamental and systemic problem with housing supply that is the cost of land for housing. By feeding the demand side, Government has effectively passed public money into the pockets of landowners. As often as Government repeats the phrase ‘hardworking’ to describe the intended beneficiaries of housing policy, it should include ‘undeserving’ to describe the owners of land on which planning permission is granted.

2.    When, in 1992,  the High Court found there to be a material difference between an affordable home and one that was sold in the open market, this would have related to the building itself, and not to some unpredictable and often politically inspired public subsidy unrelated to planning controls.  A genuinely affordable home should not be one that is only made affordable through Help to Buy, Starter Home exception, Funding for Lending, grant to Registered Providers or Housing Benefit. These subsidies have served to raise the cost of building land and the price (and rent) of housing.  If the Government address the question of land prices, the only complaints from house-builders, who find themselves squeezed between the price paid for land and reasonable demands for infrastructure, would be from those holding land bought at inflated prices. Notwithstanding the perverse effect of raising land prices and the cost of housing, if asked, the Courts could find that in the exercise of planning control ‘affordable housing’ should not include pubic subsidy (on the demand side).

3.    There is a more difficult question about home ownership. It seems unlikely that much more than two thirds of the population will ever be in the position to own their own home.  Just as Germany has been responsible in this country for providing the best railways, water supply, power supply and grocers, it also has the best models for housing in the 21st century (especially co-housing, group self-build, infrastructure provision and energy efficiency).  This very successful country prospers despite a substantially lower level of owner-occupancy.  In fact there is a growing need to encourage mobility (that would come from a larger rental sector) to effect a  better balance between the size of households and houses.  The 80% level of under-occupation is unsustainable and partly responsible for the assumed requirement to build 250,000 new units a year.

4.    At para 2 there is a claim that the reform to stamp duty will reduce the price of houses, when the evidence since the Autumn Statement shows that this change to the demand side has already raised the price of houses.

5.    The proposal also flies in the face of the findings of the All Part Parliamentary Group on Housing and Care for Older People, The affordability of retirement housing 2014, that takes a systemic view of housing and explains why the most effective way to deal with problems of housing supply and affordability is not with starter homes, but homes for right- or down-sizers. This would create mobility in the market that would release smaller homes for first time buyers.

6.    It is counter-productive to relieve more sites and housing from supporting affordable housing and infrastructure costs.  Subsidising house-buying to penalise the social and affordable renting sector has no net benefit. The failure to contribute to essential infrastructure will produce housing without the necessary improvements to public services; schools, public transport and recreation.  The Government has already introduced this form of free-riding for self-building and small site development at the same time as service providers are facing severe cutbacks.

7.    There will not be a ready supply of these discrete brownfield sites, and those that are not currently being developed are likely to have substantial clean-up costs. Pointing to under-used sites is an invitation to businesses to scale back operations and employment (just as the right to change from B1 to C3 has reduced local job opportunities). A curious aspect of the proposal is the premise that brownfield sites could be treated like ‘exception sites’ that would not normally receive permission. In fact the kind of site being described is that which would already be looked at favourably and should not have the land cost discounted in the way of rural exception sites. In fact the inclination of the Secretary of State to grant permission on greenfield sites outside the existing built up area of towns and villages has severely limited the availability of rural ‘exception sites’ that were previously seen as having little or no hope value.

8.    The fact that an urban  site is not identified for housing usually means that it does not need to be identified as it would be approved on its merits (eg within a built up area and previously developed). These windfall sites are not ‘additional’, but allowed for in the development plan land supply figures.  The starter homes create demands that will not be covered by other housing on allocated sites which, by law, can only be expected to meet their own proportional needs.

9.    Government should stop making piecemeal changes to a complex planning and housing system.  The proposed changes will have any number of unintended consequences, perverse incentives and unfairness, without actually providing the good quality homes, sustainable communities and urban environments that are desperately needed.

10. Government should take into account the fact that in the era of neighbourhood plans, any changes to the planning system that should be embedded in democratically prepared development plans, has to be addressed by parish councils with very limited resources and expertise. 


Q1: Do you agree in principle with the idea of a new national Starter Homes exception site planning policy to deliver more new low cost homes for first time buyers?

No, the idea is fundamentally flawed.  This proposal is more tinkering and not based on a systemic view. By ignoring  the main cause of house price inflation,  which is the cost of building land,  would result in this public subsidy (primarily and ironically  from affordable housing provision through s106 and contributions  to essential local services through CIL) being an added to those already being passed on to landowners (eg Help to Buy, Funding for Lending, Housing Benefit and grants to Registered Providers).

Q2: Do you agree that the Starter Homes exception site policy should focus solely on commercial and industrial brownfield land which has not been identified for housing?

This proposal exposes the lack of understanding of how the planning system actually works.  The kind of site being described is not ‘exceptional’ in the sense of a rural site which would be unlikely to receive permission,  but would be  windfall sites that are allowed in accordance with criteria based policies – and allowed for in housing supply figures.   Support for  the redevelopment of commercial and brownfield  land  will reduce the opportunities for local employment (as is occurring  through the relaxation of the GPDO)

Q3: Do you agree that the types of land most suitable for Starter Homes will be under-utilised or non-viable sites currently (or formerly) in commercial or industrial use?

This requirement would introduce the perverse incentive of businesses to scale down their operations and a need (impossibility) to define ‘under-utilisation’ and ‘viability’ in local and neighbourhood plans.

Q4: Do you consider it necessary to avoid Starter Homes developments in isolated locations, or where there would be conflicts with key protections in the National Planning Policy Framework?

No housing should be built in isolated and unsustainable locations.  The need to build in existing settlements is not for landscape protection reasons but primarily to enable social inclusion.

Q5: Do you agree that the Starter Homes exception site policy should allow at the planning authority’s discretion a small proportion of market homes to be included when they are necessary for the financial viability of the Starter Homes site?

This is another over complicated mechanism for which the local planning authority is completely unprepared.  Affordability and viability should start with the valuation of development land at existing use value with a small but attractive uplift (see Lyons Review)

Q6: Do you agree starter homes secured through the Starter Homes exception site policy should only be offered for sale or occupation to young first time buyers?

Age is a ‘category error’ at both ends of life.  It hides the wide variety of personal circumstances.  Limiting a subsidy to under-forties and first time buyers misses those hardworking people in broken homes (sometimes with young children)  who are in housing need. There are couples of very different ages who may or may not be actually intending to live together.  All generations should be living together and not receive inducements to live apart.
Q7: Do you think there are sufficient existing mechanisms in place to police this policy?

No.  Planning departments will be subject to severe cutbacks (one of the vulnerable services not ring fenced) and should not be given additional responsibilities.  The best way of delivering houses would be to stop the  tinkering which limits the effectiveness of local government, and central government should deal at national level with ‘affordability’ by addressing the cost of development land.

Q8: What is the most appropriate length for a restriction on the sale of a starter home at open market value? How should the sliding scale be set?

If there is a sliding scale there is no reason to worry about the length of the taper.  However, the principle of Starter Homes introduces the need for strict definitions (individual or shared responsibility of singles, couples or triples) which will then intrude on the freedom of people to choose whether or not  to continue to live together.

Q9: Do you agree that guidance should make clear it is inappropriate for Starter Homes exception site projects to be subject to section 106 contributions for affordable housing and tariffs?

No.  There should be no further exemptions from s106 (including affordable housing)  that, by definition and case  law, can only be  required  if necessary and fairly related to the development and/or in accordance with the development plan.  Exemptions imply a public subsidy being paid to the landowners and freeloading by the Starter Home development at the expense of the private and social/affordable rental sector.

Q10: Do you agree that Starter Homes exception site projects should be exempt from the payment of the Community Infrastructure Levy?

No.  There should be no further exemptions from CIL which has been methodically worked out and examined  on what is required to pay for local infrastructure and must be justified as  necessary and fairly related to the development and/or in accordance with the development plan.  Exemptions imply a public subsidy being paid to the landowners and freeloading by the Starter Home development at the expense of other housing providers and occupiers. The assumption that occupiers can simply use services provided by other new development is wrong and legally flawed.  Other new development would only have provided that which was necessary for its own needs (eg school places, bus services, Citizen Advice provision and recreational facilities). Exemptions would deprive parish councils of the funds necessary to enhance facilities to make locations more sustainable.

Q11: Do you have any views on how this register should work and the information it should contain?

LPAs should usefully be keeping registers for self-builders, group self-builders and potential co-housers. Another register with individuals and possibly related people of different and increasing ages and possibly local needs implies careful judgements (possibly by panels or committee), appeal procedures and possibly judicial review of mistakes or apparently unreasonable decisions. All this at the time of severe cutbacks?

Q12: What kind of vanguard programme would be most helpful to support the roll out of Starter Homes?

The Starter Home exception is misconceived as it is a replacement for the failure to tackle land prices as the fundamental key to affordability. In the case of necessary systemic changes there should no need for  ‘vanguards’,  which is a mechanism suited for changes where Government anticipates problems.  There are enough difficulties with the proposals to know that problems will arise without these being uncovered by vanguards or trial and error.  For example vanguards would have to be those authorities in the process of review of their local plans so that these could include the many definitions on which the proposals are predicated; what would comprise an exception site which would or would not be a normally occurring windfall, decision-making and appeal procedure and  fair but flexible eligibility criteria.  Introducing these novel and potentially contentious policies would delay the approval of new and replacement development plans and their implementation.

The proposal of a Design Advisory Panels (there is no question dedicated to this?) should be abandoned. There is a very carefully constructed Building for Life scheme operating with the support of LPAs and housebuilders.  There are design guides produced by LPAs and (unfortunately) more design guidance in neighbourhood plans. The last thing that is required is more design guidance especially from higher levels.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Transition and planning

When asked how the draft local plan would help the transition to a low carbon economy (between 6% and 10% carbon emissions reduction per year - towards the higher end unless starting now) and accommodate about 40% growth in houses (as per Strategic Housing Market Assessment - SHMA) and jobs (Local Enterprise Partnership guess) and associated infrastructure over the next 15 years, the responsible councillor said that it would and could not. When asked why the Lyons Review had not incorporated recommendations as to how new housing would be zero carbon the representative from the planning profession suggested that this would have made the report unwieldy.  It seems transition towns or carbon descent is proving too difficult for planning and planners.

However, the statutory framework of the Climate Change Act and associated budgets (50% reductions by 2050 and 60% by 2030) give us no choice.  It would be extraordinary, and nobody has suggested, that the use of land and buildings would be unaffected by this scale of change. What is lacking is the vision or imagination to identify the changes that would enable the transition to take place without social trauma if not revolution.  I am afraid that the planning system is backward looking and mired in conventions that have delivered and continue to deliver urban developments almost all of which will require adaptation to a low and close to zero carbon economy.

A backcasting exercise (VIBAT 2006 UCL/Halcow) demonstrated that a low carbon (ie 40% of existing) transport system would require the national speed limit to be reduced to about 50mph.  It would be very helpful to have an equivalent backcasting for the housing system.  It seems unlikely that 70 million people will be able to live a zero carbon lifestyle in this country in 2050 unless under-occupation has been reduced from 80% to negligible proportions. If commuting will be less than today why are we intent on building more roads and railways?  If houses will be carbon neutral or negative, why are houses being built to CSH 3 in 2014? If we will be eating a greater proportion of food from the local area why are houses being built on Best and Most Versatile Land and no houses being provided in the urban fringe for the increased workforce?

When asked whether the planning system should be responsible for widening the opportunities for co-housing and self-building a very senior and influential planner suggested that this was not a priority (divert from the priority of concentrating on building 250,000 units per year).

If the current planning system is badly placed (laws and policy) and staffed (competence and imagination) to facilitate the necessary transition then we should say so and leave the job to other planners.  While keeping up the pretense that we are doing something (effective) about it,  those better placed and with greater competence are being excluded.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Exemptions from zero carbon homes consultation

This is the link for the current consultation on exemptions from the commitment to zero carbon homes by 2016 (already not strictly zero carbon)


Please look at it and reply to DCLG by 7 January 2015.   My thoughts are as set out below. It is not the proposed exemption that will make the difference but the repeated signal that the Government does not " get it" when it comes to carbon reductions.  The main point is the false dichotomy set up to excuse the inadequate attempts at carbon reductions as, to take effective action, might threaten economic growth.  In fact it is not paying for carbon reductions which might undermine GDP but a low carbon economy, if it were ever achieved, is likely to be one where growth in GDP would not be discernible.  There might well be growth in all sorts of more worthwhile ways.  Anyway I am sure that the DCLG would welcome more reaction to its consultation.


This consultation is fundamentally about carbon emissions but lacks the understanding necessary to produce a coherent and effective policy.  Two basic elements are missing from the analysis:

1.   The building sector (including residential development) is possibly the only and definitely the easiest sector within which to achieve early reductions consistent with the statutory (ie 80%) cuts in carbon emissions required by 2050.  In fact residential development has the potential for 100% + carbon emission cuts – “carbon negative” or “solar positive”.  This will be essential to meet the overall targets as there is no workable plan for agriculture, industry, power generation, and transport (including aviation and shipping) to meet the necessary  80% savings.
2.   It is not the level of carbon emissions in 2050 that will matter. What are required are substantial reductions as early as possible. The 6% annual reductions that might be sufficient if achieved now, will very soon reach 10% (already the minimum necessary according to the Tyndall Institute).  Whilst with existing technology and knowhow, housing has the potential to reduce its contribution to carbon emissions, even this is proving to be very challenging particularly in respect of the 22million  existing homes.  This emphasises the need not to add to the burden and to move towards carbon negative building to make up for the challenges in other sectors and the problems with the Green Deal and the massive stock of solid wall houses.
3.   Paras 8 and 25 set up a false dichotomy between economic growth and reducing carbon.  There will be no recognisable economy in a Country with more than 2 degrees of planetry warming.  In other words economic growth has to be defined and, if necessary, adjusted, to be compatible with carbon reductions known to be necessary to limit warming 2 degrees (350 to 400 ppm).

Very little weight should be given to responses received to the 6 questions in this consultation that are not based on the premises that the housing sector must make a disproportionate contribution to carbon emissions particularly in the immediate future during which other sectors are needing to research, innovate and develop.  The only evidence that that zero carbon housing would not be compatible with the Climate Change Act is that even higher standards might be required – without delay.

Question 1 should the exemption be targeted at site size, developer size, or a combination of both? Is there any evidence to support the choice made?  The consultation makes a compelling case for having no exemptions by describing the various traps and false and perverse incentives which arise when thresholds are created.  The occupiers of the house will not know that their heating bill is higher because of the number of builders employed in its construction or the number or size of dwellings on the site.  Passivhaus developments are often relatively small and the extra cost (est 12% as the industry matures) is recovered in 7 years.

Question 2 – if the Government chose a site size exemption, what level should this be set and why?  There is no ‘carbon reduction’ argument or justification for any exemption.  The Government would like to see more small builders and sees building standards as a brake on their growth.  If exemptions succeed in the growth of this sector then an increasing and  substantial number of sub-standard dwellings would be built – all adding to a burden that will have to made good.  As there should be no pretence that any of these houses will actually be upgraded, where will this locked-in deficit be recovered by 2050 and beyond?

There are many good planning reasons for large sites to be developed in phases (CIL has already caused this – a positive but unintended incentive) and areas reserved for self/group – builders or finishers. Similar reservations could be made for relatively small builders. Thresholds in the proposed regulations would complicate and interfere with these desirable trends.

Question 3 – if the Government chose a developer size exemption, what criteria should it apply and why?

Same as above –exemptions from zero carbon (or carbon negative) in the housing sector, will never be made good.

Question 4 – What do you think the scope of the exemption should cover? An exemption for the allowable solutions scheme only, or an additional exemption from Building Regulations requirements? Do you have any evidence to support the choice between these options?

It may be that,  “29.The Government’s preferred approach is to exempt small sites from the allowable solutions component only.” and it is essential that at least the new houses are all built to zero carbon.  However, even If it is only the allowable solutions that are relaxed then there must be a programme for how this deficit is made good without delay.   As allowable solutions should be concentrated on reducing carbon from housing (eg building materials, associated infrastructure and electricity/heat) any exemptions will make it impossible for the housing sector to achieve the necessary quick and deep carbon emission reductions.

Question 5 – What are your views on the proposed review period for the exemption? All regulations can be reviewed.  There would be no obvious positive or perverse incentives for the industry to reduce emissions faster and deeper if a review period was set up at the outset. If no exemptions should be made in the first place the industry will quickly adapt – it is the large scale developers that are least adaptable and agile.

Question 6(?) – Do you have any further evidence that would help inform the impact assessment?

It is essential to remember that the purpose of zero carbon housing is to incentivise faster and deeper reductions in carbon emissions from the building and occupation of housing.  There is no reason why the industry would not adapt to a positive, coherent and lasting regulatory regime. There is no time in the house-building sector for the prevarication implied by this consultation.  Exemptions will create unintended and possibly perverse incentives that would detract from the industry’s job of delivering new housing that would not add to the problem of carbon reductions in this sector and across the board.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Planning, carbon reduction and low hanging fruit

I have just read through  draft Local Plan that is intended to guide development in an English rural area (three market towns and about 30 villages) over the next 15 years.  This is the period that carbon emissions must be reduced by 60% in accordance with the Climate Change Act.  It is also a period during which 20,000 houses are expected to be built with a proportionate level of employment growth (and commuting).   The 4th carbon budget is based on annual carbon reductions of about 6% aimed at getting to 80% reductions by 2050, while the Tyndall Institute already regard between 8% and 10% to be necessary (looking at 90% reductions and seeking to secure these earlier rather than later).

My modest contribution to this debate is to raise a couple of questions to which I am not hearing any answers.

1.   Assuming we are not deluding ourselves that immediate annual savings  of about 6% can be achieved -  why are carbon emissions still rising?

2.   If even early reductions are not being achieved - ie those most affordable and using existing technologies - what hope is there to achieve cuts with expensive and not yet available technologies?

So back to the Local Plan, substantial levels of carbon emissions are attributable to housing, transport, energy production and food supply all of which can be controlled to some extent by planning policies. It would be surprising if a world (or rural English district) emitting 60% less carbon would look very much the same as now.  However, looking at the Plan, the only certainty is that there will be more buildings and roads.  There may be a few more solar panels and somewhat less agricultural land.  The 'low hanging carbon fruit' of carbon negative/solar plus buildings, low energy car clubs, a step change increase in bus travel and cycling (based on privileging buses/ and cycling over cars through investment and regulation), supporting local food production/processing/ distribution, and using new housing (small, south facing terraces) to reduce under-occupancy,  is all being left on the tree. It must be doubtful that even these measures could achieve more than modest carbon reductions without significant behavioural change which remains taboo.

Without the first signs that the planning system has understood the gravity of the situation, and the challenge of 6% plus annual carbon reductions, the planned growth in housing and jobs in this district and elsewhere looks very much like resulting in a proportionate growth in carbon emissions (including those resulting from building/construction).  However, new houses and jobs are needed and could and should act as the drivers of change to a low carbon society/economy.  It seems that the current operators of the planning system are not up to this task but,  of course, the same questions need to be asked of our politicians and public.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Social Care

There will be nothing new in this Blog but the message is one of the most important for planners in this country - and possibly elsewhere.  The costs of social care is probably the only common life risks where the costs are not pooled and paid for by the state like the NHS for health treatment and care or insurable like our cars and property.  Sir Andrew Dilnot recommended state support would be beneficial and could be politically attractive if capped so that there would be sharing of the expense. his proposal was a cap to the individual of between 25k and 50k with the state picking up the extra. He believes that the cap might be nearer 60k for those who have it (there would be a means test). Higher figures have been suggested but the means test would afford some protection to those of modest means.

My layman's eye view of this (supported by any number of reports on the costs (eg from IPPR, the Kings Fund and Age UK) is that we are in denial about the affordability and desirability of the current system, by which I mean the caring burden carried by families and institutions.  I can't see that families will be able to cope with the extraordinary increase in older people including an increasing number of frail elderly with multiple conditions.  And I can't see that the state can pick up the cost of what families cannot do, as the tax payers of the future will have many other financial commitments (including student fees, mortgages, pensions - theirs and those of the retired) but having more precarious employment.  The Chancellor has already experienced a low tax take despite high levels of employment.

But my point is that the financial cost of social care is not the point.  It is the need to reduce the need for care by the state (and sometimes by families) by building caring environments.  We should not be building one more private house that is not designed to relate closely to the public realm and to a space where people can stand and sit and be noticed in all weathers.  Just by designing spaces where falls are less likely to happen will have a substantial bearing on the costs to the NHS.  If falls do not occur or are less serious, older people will continue to venture out and the need for care in the home will be reduced.  If a neighbourhood builds levels of familiarity and companionship then people will feel more comfortable about providing companionship and elements of care in the home.

This should not need saying and of course there are places where these traditions are alive and well, and in Leeds and Cornwall systems are being introduced to nurture this informal care.  However, planners, architects and urban designers are still pandering to privacy and making it sufficiently difficult for incidental caring to flourish at the scale that will be necessary when (and not if) existing social care systems crash.  So the point that needs repeating is that the growth of informal and mutual caring should be a massive benefit arising from the failure to maintain the institutionalised methods. And I can't end without saying that co-housing models would do all these things, whether designed from scratch or as a plan to adapt existing urban areas.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

A rght to self/custom - build?

On 24 October 2014 the Government published the consultation Right to Build: supporting custom and self-build https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/366722/141023_Right_to_Build_Consultation_FINAL.pdf with a closing date of 18 December 2014.

This consultation is on top of several financial incentives (many to group self-builders) and the private member's bill to make it a statutory requirement for planning authorities to keep registers of potential self-builders.

When preparing a response it seems that the Government is shy of the obvious mechanism of increasing supply of self/custom-build plots which is to require a (say) 20% of all larger sites to be reserved for those purposes. 20% is more than the 10% of all new dwellings which is the recent trend seen as inadequate to meet either the demand (eg 145 from 900 households in my village) or the need to build more dwellings without relying on the large volume builders.  In fact the paper does refer to the Teignbridge Plan that requires 5% of plots on large sites to be reserved for these purposes.  This might create some supply but below trend.  The prospect of Councils finding land to meet the 'right' implied by having a name included on a register seems to be unrealistic.  And what would be the legalistic nightmare of a Council's failure to satisfy that right?

As so often a better response can be found in policy and not in law.  The Paper says that the supply should be in accordance with the planning system that implies that supportive policies and proposals should be included in the hundreds of neighbourhood development plans and local plans in preparation.  Changes in legislation will not be made until the next Government in 2015 when many development plans will have taken further steps towards adoption.  There seems to be no reason why all such plans could  not require 20% of plots on sites of 5 dwellings and over to be reserved for sel/custom-building - both to be carefully defined in the plan.  If there are no takers from the registers then the developer would be free to finish these plots.  These larger sites are much more likely to be on land that it is appropriate/sustainable to develop than for Councils to find what might be "exception sites" that are unsuitable for housing.

The Paper makes no reference to the need for these self-custom-built homes to be sustainable and to be zero-carbon.  The general need for two bedroomed south facing terraced housing might not be easy to reconcile with a self-build community used to building four bedroomed detached homes.  There is also an interesting question of whether models of self/custom-building can meet the need for downsizers.  It would be fantastic if the capital from downsizers could be added to the energy and skills of those after their first (small) that could be built for rent (but with staircasing options.  The Paper discusses the role of Community Land Trusts (and Housing Associations) as assisting with the provision of self/custom-built housing for affordable rent and CLTs might provide the platform for these partnerships.  It would be too much to hope for to find a reference to co-housing as an ideal way of joining these interests - and possibility of building themselves a commonhouse and other shared facilities.

Good marks to the Government for picking up on this issue but I hope that respondents will explain that models should include enabling policies in development plans that describe how self/custom-building should be zero carbon, 'affordable' in terms of the required quota and should be part of the phased development of all sites of five or over (less than 20% would be lower than the current trend). No change of the law is required if Councils accept the benefits of this kind of houising and recognise these in development plans.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The pursuit of loneliness and the affordablility of housing

This is a letter written to the Guardian in response to an article by George Monbiot.

"George Monbiot (Life in the age of loneliness 15 October) does not
refer to the role that our planning system has played, at least as an
accomplice, in creating the loneliest 'society' in Europe. During the
next few years hundreds of thousands of new homes will be built,
mostly following a model that could reasonably be described as
“pandering to privacy". In 1968 an American sociologist Philip Slater
suggested that,  “The longing for privacy  is generated by the drastic
conditions that a longing for privacy produces.”  We seem to be in
this vicious cycle where our individualism makes it increasingly
difficult to provide mutual support and affection. Private housing is
being designed to be not only privately owned but anti-social in its
occupation.  Planners should be engaged in the provision of co-housing
where care and companionship are the norm."

The Slater book was called the Pursuit of Loneliness and the vicious circle he describes has been dividing society since he identified the insidious effects of privacy. 

On unrelated matters I thought that I would share a thought from a friend about how to make climate change conversations more compelling. Mutually Assured Destruction or the Path of MADnesss is well understood as one of the factors which induced nuclear powers to keep their weapons under wraps for the second half of the 20th Century.  MAD would seem equally apt in respect of the effects of climate change and should be an inducement to all emitters to agree to reductions.

On the topic of acronyms I am now using SI units (not for Systeme International - mm, cm, m, km etc) but for units of Self-Indulgence as a handy label for individualistic behaviour.  Examples would be a long haul flight to a sandy beach being close to the max of 10 points but the same flight to help care for ebola sufferers would be zero.  A short haul to attend a conference that was being skyped/streamed would be about 5.  We then move to degrees C of curmudgeonliness, where my complaints about the planning system are at least 5 and would be much higher if not justified by the facts.

A new week and a new initiative to build 200,000 plus dwellings per year. This time it is the Labour Party failing to understand that we have reached the limits of affordability ie all  housing for those not being able to climb onto the housing ladder through earning at least a living wage  (and in most places much more) has to have a public subsidy. This subsidy whether for rent or purchase goes straight to the landowner.  Why would the majority of voters not support a scheme for the compulsory purchase of land designated for housing in development plans - with ample funds going to physical and social infrastructure?

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Affordable housing

It would be impertinent to attempt to deal with the issue of affordable housing in a single blog. However,  there are a few matters that I think could be discussed as this becomes ever more pressing issue and  one that will play an important part of the debate between the parties leading up to the 2015 General Election.

At the Conservative Party conference the Prime Minister found it  opportune to announce the discounting of  100,000 new homes that will also be  free of obligations  relating to energy efficiency. CIL, or other financial contributions (under s.106) that are needed to provide local infrastructure and  housing  at affordable rents.

The Conservative Party might well be in tune with the majority of voters in concentrating on home ownership  and  being convinced that the majority of homeowners will vote for them.   The exemption from the future zero carbon homes requirement  ignores the importance of 'affordable living' (based on lower fuel bills) in an attempt to get more people onto the ladder of home ownership. This is just the most recent attempt to make home ownership more affordable following on from the Funding for Lending and Help to Buy schemes which, together with the bank of 'mum and dad' have  helped to fuel the national increases in house prices.   Government  is increasingly  spending taxpayers money on subsidising the purchasing of houses being made less affordable by the subsidies.

It was Mr Pickles  who introduced a  scheme whereby housing associations and other providers can bid for a share of £400m in low-cost loans to build up to 10,000 new homes during 2015 to 2018. They will mainly consist of one- and two- bedroom flats.  Landlords must then make the homes available for rent at below-market rates for a minimum of seven years. This fixed period will give tenants the chance to save up for a deposit and get ready to buy their own home. A welcome but tiny initiative that uses the inflated land/housing costs as its datum and holds out the bait of home ownership.

Meanwhile, rents in the private sector  are also increasing as tenants are  having to  pay more for less space  (obviously a trend  that is more prevalent  in property hot spots).

To some extent the cost of  housing will be affected by  the cost of supplying new houses and any discussion on affordability should  include the cost of the components of building a dwelling (land, materials and labour) and then the components of the available finance. On the supply side there have been rises in the cost of both materials and labour but not  to the extent that would create a price bubble.  If  a house was built on land at agricultural value the land component would be in the order of £800  and not £80,000 that is the average cost of a single plot  in the south-east and  other areas with a buoyant economy. The 100  fold increase is largely down to the  desire and ability to pay -  which is  influenced by subsidies from government and parents. Incidentally, the benefit to parents is in maintaining the price of existing houses, including those owned by them.   It seems obvious, and it is part of the campaign to build new settlements ( increasingly referred to as garden cities), that by discounting the land value new housing can be built at lower prices and there would still be surplus for  the provision of physical and  social infrastructure.

While Government  does nothing to interfere with the market for housing land,  housing has probably reached the limits of affordability without  the scale of subsidies appearing to be politically unacceptable. In these circumstances the Government  should not be attempting to reduce standards but focusing attention on the need for  attractive smaller dwellings.  Small dwellings  use less materials (and less  transport and embedded carbon) and less labour,  but not necessarily less land if garden areas are part of what would make them attractive to those downsizing from larger properties. However, smaller dwellings would be cheaper and therefore more affordable and cheaper to furnish and heat. They lend themselves to terracing that is the most energy-efficient form of housing, especially if built with  south facing roofs and windows for solar gain.   Downsizing  to such developments at scale would be more likely to occur  is built as  in-filling and urban extensions rather than new settlements.  Larger dwellings would be released into the market and in private and social rental sectors.

My contention is that the housing models including  a predominantly3 and 4 bedroomed detached dwellings  should be regarded as intrinsically  unsustainable  (unable to benefit from the presumption in favour of sustainable development In the National Planning Policy Framework)  and unaffordable  on social, economic and environmental grounds. The Government should be concentrating on ways to incentivise the subdivision of larger dwellings.  We should be looking at  how housing  can be made 'sustainable'  and would  likely find that  socially inclusive housing that minimises its environmental impact would also be the most affordable -  win, win, win.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

DCLG Framework Review

The Communities Parliamentary Select Committee are reviewing the working of the National Planning Policy Framework and I attended a workshop on 1 September 2014. Although delegates had already submitted written comments we were invited to make representations arising from these further discussions.  Some of the points in the following note were included in the original but I thought needed emphasising:

1.             There seemed to be general confusion between the contents of the Framework and its implementation.  It does not make any difference if the Framework says ,’Para 93…Planning plays a key role in helping shape places to secure radical reductions in greenhouse gas emission… ‘ if this is ignored by LPAs, inspectors (the inspector in an appeal  equating sustainable development to 'consuming its own smoke' is an honourable exception). The SoS is notably guilty of ignoring the ‘sustainable’ part of the presumption.  It is doubtful whether any of the developments permitted since March 2012 come near to consuming their own smoke, which then become a burden on future generations.
2.             There was a startling contrast between the reaction of the invitees and that of Clive Betts to the claim from one delegate at the end of the session that she felt like a lone voice on the role planning plays in failing to mitigate GHG emissions.  The Chairman seemed to suggest that this would be a matter of planning and energy on which there were few representations apparently unaware of the injunction at para 93 cited above.  My original paper points to a number of areas where planning of housing could and should mitigate GHG emissions.
3.             Much was said about the absence of either or both a local plan or demonstrable 5 year housing land supply.  This has been made into a problem by those involved in planning decisions by  their failure to grapple with the very serious implications of meeting the Carbon Budgets and other aspects of sustainable development. Weight should be given to an emerging  local/neighbourhood plan where it is consistent with the Framework (see para 216) . The unsustainable nature of the developments permitted since March 2012 suggests that these emerging plans are being ignored or policies necessary to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development are absent.
4.             Clive Betts seemed to be concerned about the impression that the Framework was seen as so helpful to large scale developers or landbankers and not to smaller builders. While it would not be possible to have one framework for the large and another for the small, there are forms of development which are more likely to involve smaller developers.  Para 50 has proved to be inadequate to meet the demand for self-building (and the emerging demand for custom-building and co-housing).  This should be strengthened to require LPAs to include local plan policies and determine applications to ensure that a proportion of all substantial sites are ‘reserved’ (for a time) for self/custom-building and co-housing.  Registers of interest in these sectors should be kept by all LPAs and they should also be included in the definition of affordable housing in the Glossary.
5.             Clive Betts seemed to be of the view that the need for new housing was in the order of 250,000 new units regardless of claims being made by delegates that the assessment of need should include under-occupancy, empty homes (including the growing trends of build-to-leave by foreign investors) and second homes.  The analysis of Prof Danny Dorling  (found in All that is Solid 2014 Penguin) seems to have no impact.  The Framework should deal with the likelihood that about half the assumed need might possibly be met by new build and deal with the most important issue of the more efficient use of the housing stock (especially co-housing and downsizing – often the same thing).

Friday, August 29, 2014

Theory and Practice

The obituaries describing the quite extraordinary achievements of Prof Peter Hall who died last week left me breathless and humbled.  He seems to have bridged the gap between academia and practice as an exception to the 'rule' that the British planning system in practice has operated in a space that has been remarkably free of theory.  It would take more than a Blog to explore the reasons for this disconnect but I would like to pick on two parts of Hall's work. 

Hall was preeminent in both understanding the part that urban containment played in post-WWII development in this country and in his advocacy of new settlements.  My Blogs have suggested other dimensions to these elements of our planning system; the limiting of supply has served to maintain the value of houses owned by members of our property owning 'democracy', and that we should be looking at how to use new development to re-balance the size of houses and households in existing settlements before (but not always instead of) building new settlements with the same imbalance and latent needs for more housing. Like Hall, Prof Danny Dorling (see previous Blog) is a geographer and has some important things to say to planners and politicians who care to listen.

Hall's puzzlement at the arrival of a Chinese translation of this text on British planning  reflects my bafflement at what readers in Moldova and Turkey are making of make of DanthePlan's critique of the British system? Hall was very engaged internationally and was able to develop a macro overview of planning as it was practiced in Europe and the USA.  DanthePlan has developed an essentially micro view of the planning system through 40 years' practice and is still looking for assistance from the academic world to develop a workable (and politically acceptable) definition of 'sustainable development' that could be used by decision-makers to apply the presumption in the NPPF put a stop to the building of hundreds of thousands of new dwellings (reports just today of an upturn in delivery to over 120,000 per year) that are adding to the problems associated with urban development eg excessive  carbon emissions, reliance on private transport and exacerbating social exclusion and isolation.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Sustainable Housing: manifesto items for next UK Government

With acknowledgements to Danny Dorling (All that is Solid Penguin 2014) and aplolgies for the length and formatting.

Manifesto for sustainable housing

The overriding objectives of the planning and housing portfolio should be to make the use of the existing and new national housing stock making it more – affordable, socially inclusive and environmentally sustainable (taking into account measures of bio-diversity and carbon emissions arising from both construction and use).

Previous governments have taken the view that the remedies for the perceived failures of the planning system, including the provision of adequate housing, are to be found in changing the law or regulations.  Most if not all of the necessary measures can be achieved through changes to policy.  Such changes can be implemented very quickly and at little or no public expense.  All the suggestions would ‘contribute to the achievement of sustainable development’ (a legal requirement of planning policy and control) and would benefit from the presumption in favour of sustainable development described in the NPPPF as the ‘golden thread’ running through both plan-making and decision-taking.

Using new development to re-balance the size of households and houses should be given priority over new settlements which are likely to increase rather than address this need (as they would incorporate a level of under-occupancy that would then need to be addressed).  New settlements also imply a high cost of infrastructure provision (ie a 50% premium over urban expansion) and would are unlikely to make better use of existing physical and social infrastructure.

1.         Under-occupancy

In whichever way under-occupancy is measured (averaging over 1 spare reception room, 1 and more often 2 or more spare bedrooms – amounting to about 15million spare bedrooms or the equivalent of nearly 30 years supply of new dwellings at 250,00 per year), increasing the efficiency and sustainability of the housing stock would appear to be the most pressing issue to be addressed by the new Government. The ‘bedroom tax’ was introduced to address this issue in the social rented sector but under-occupation is more prevalent in privately owned and occupied housing and particularly by elderly households.  The levels of privately owned empty properties and second homes are also unsustainable.

            – to extend the council tax bands to cover the mostly larger dwellings that have become disproportionately more valuable since the tax bands were established in 1991 as an incentive to downsize. Remove the 25% discount for single person households and double council tax for both empty and second homes (an appeal process for   special cases will require new regulations).

            - the ‘bedroom tax’ regulations should be repealed.  The problem of under-occupancy  in the social rental sector should be addressed in the same way as in the private sector, through the provision of more smaller dwellings; affordable (including running costs) and conveniently located through either new build or conversions/sub-divisions.   

            -  a commission should be established to look at the potential of a  land value tax to           possibly supersede the council tax (and business rates).

            - through a revision the NPPF should require special justification for new   dwellings of more than  two bedrooms – suitable for both downsizers (that should include some with relatively large gardens) and new households.

- the NPF should be revised o require any dwellings of more than two bedrooms to be designed so as to be easily and cheaply re-configured to form two smaller dwellings (a condition on the original permission could permit this sub-division without further application  - a provision that might require an amendment to the General Permitted Development Order - GPDO).  Grants could be made available to pay for sub-divisions.

- the NPPF should be revised to support conditions being applied on planning permissions for new dwellings requiring planning permission to be obtained for extensions that would reduce the supply of smaller  (more affordable and more energy efficient) dwellings. 

- the GPDO should be changed to reduce the scale of extensions that could be built without express permission  that would make  housing larger, less affordable and less energy efficient.  Express permission and special justification should be required for significant extensions and all at two storey extensions – with support for extensions that would enable sub-division to smaller dwellings.

            - the Right to Buy should be repealed together with substantial improvements in the           law/regulations applicable to the social and private rental sectors in terms of  security,  and control over rent increases.  A ‘right to stay’ should apply to those defaulting on payments who have exercised the ‘right to buy’ – possibly through an equity release to a registered provider.

            - both Help to Buy and Funding for Lending should be repealed

            - the criminalisation of squatting should be repealed

2.         Energy efficiency and reduction of greenhouse gases

Under-occupancy is a substantial driver of carbon emissions; inefficient use of building materials, wasted space heating and, by lower population density reduces the level of use and viability  of local services, including public transport.  The difficulty that transport, energy production, manufacturing, agriculture and leisure sectors will experience in reducing their GHG emissions quickly and in accordance with the Climate Change Act/Carbon budgets and 2011 Carbon Plan, places an additional burden on buildings (including housing) where the technologies are available to reduce emissions to below zero (becoming net producers of low/zero carbon energy).


              - the confusion about the status of the Code for Sustainable Homes – currently being      addressed by the Building Research Establishment - places the onus on local planning authorities to find ways through the development plan system to prevent/refuse        permission for   development that does not benefit from the NPPF ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’.  The Government should continue to rely on the planning system to make good the deficiencies in the Building Regulations in this respect; water conservation/consumption, low carbon generation/allowable solutions, bio-diversity    protection, creation and off-setting, post-occupancy evaluation and remediation.

            -  it should be made a condition of all ‘permitted development’ that the dwelling house as  altered/extended should meet CSH Level 4 or an equivalent standard (previously described as ‘consequential improvements’ when proposed by the Coalition Government).

            - it should be a pre-condition of sale or lease that a dwelling comes up to a minimum          standard (eg CSH Level 5) – with an appeal procedure that can substitute ‘allowable               solutions’.

            - the NPPF should explain why special justification should be required for new housing that is not terraced and with a southern aspect.

3.         Housing supply

The significant control and influence that a few large building firms have exerted over the supply of new housing suggests that a major reform to the supply of land for housing is required.  There are indications that this country (compared to examples in Europe) is short of opportunities for self/custom building by individuals or groups.  There is an even greater shortage of opportunities for co-housing – the most affordable, efficient, socially inclusive and, therefore, sustainable form of housing.

Housing in the countryside is an important component of producing, processing and distributing ‘local food’.  The supply of dwellings for which the occupancy was restricted to those employed in agriculture   has been depleted with the reduction of those employed on the land.


            - both co-housing and categories of self/custom-building need to be defined in the   NPPF and then privileged by housing policies at national (eg NPPF and Planning Policy Wales) and              local levels.  This should be done by requiring a proportion of all housing allocations and permissions to be reserved for co-housing and self/custom-building.

            - the NPPF should be amended to include co-housing and self-building (probably not         custom building) in the category of ‘affordable housing’ within the quotas being required by development plan policies (like affordable housing, self-building is  already exempt council tax).
- To reverse the loss of agricultural dwellings the NPPF should support local policies requiring  one or two dwellings on  developments on the urban/village fringe to subject an ‘ag-tag’ and be part of the affordable housing requirement (see previous blogs on planning and local food).